Music Exams or Suzuki Graduation? A Candid Comparison.

Exams are on next week! How does this make you feel? Many music students associate music exams with emotions ranging from nervousness and anxiety to dread and panic. They say the best feeling comes when they’re over. So why do we do them? Are they really necessary?


Music Exams: + and –

First, let’s look at some of the commonly accepted purposes of music exams:

  • Motivation and goals. Exams give students a definite goal to work for. Why would you practise so hard if you didn’t have an exam to do?
  • Experience in performing under pressure. Exams force you to overcome nerves – if you can.
  • Structure and system. They are based on commonly accepted standards and are easy for teachers to implement.
  • Measurement. Grading measures where you are on the pyramid.
  • Recognition. That certificate is a tangible record of achievement – and looks great on the wall.
  • Breadth. Exams make you learn other important musical skills like ear training, sight reading, scales and theory.
  • Feedback. Skilled examiners provide positive and negative criticism – from an objective perspective.

These are all worthwhile objectives for any music student, but are exams the only way to achieve them? Before I attempt to answer this question, I’d like to relate a few of my experiences.

Renewable Energy

Over the years I’ve trained a number of our senior students for music exams, usually taken in conjunction with high school studies. They all passed successfully, yet a significant percent of these students subsequently experienced a lean period in their musical lives, and some even gave up violin completely. In contrast, practically all of the senior students who didn’t take exams continued on without interruption – mostly into university music or related areas. They maintained and strengthened their love of music.

Talking to high school students at a prestigious private school during an evening presentation I gave for choosing study electives, I heard how a majority of them were giving up music in the final two years of school. Why? Despite enjoying to play, they didn’t like the exams, considering them too pressured and, in light of the demands of other subjects, too broad to devote sufficient time for a good score – unless you were already a very advanced player. In fact, music was scored (weighted) down in relation to other subjects. You can get 100% in maths, 90% or more in other subjects, almost never in music.

Then there is the familiar tale I heard from a friend of mine recently of how she gave up the piano after a traumatic exam. I managed to survive intact, although some training in public performance would have made a significant difference. I was mystified and confused by the sudden onset of nerves in my exam playing, despite the friendly encouragement of the examiner.

University Music

As Director of our school, I realised early on that you don’t need high school music or grades to enter university music courses and candidates are assessed primarily by audition and interview. So we advised students wishing to study university music to focus on the audition performance. I met with the university music faculty head to discuss suitable repertoire pieces and put together a good list to choose from. This system worked very well and happily, every student who auditioned gained a place.




A Graduation System

In Japan we learned and used Suzuki’s Graduation System: public recitals based on readiness to graduate. The system he developed achieves almost of the benefits of exams and more, with less of the drawbacks. It requires a lot of work to put into practice, yet I believe it is well worth the effort.

I think that the biggest obstacle to establishing a Suzuki type graduation system is the prevailing culture of exams, testing and the currency given to music grades. We are so accustomed to the practice of grading by tests that it is hard to see another way to do it – and achieve the same or better results. The exam system is well established and easy to follow. Consequently there’s a tendency for graduation systems to evolve into surrogate forms of testing and grading.

The principle idea underpinning a good graduation system is to follow the normal practice of professional musicians and their relationship to their audience. Musician present a concert when they are fully prepared. Audiences wouldn’t wish to go to a concert where they suspected that the music, regardless of the level of difficulty or the age of the musician, was to be played with less than 100% accuracy: out of tune, with wrong or missing notes, or at an incorrect tempo.

Elements of a Good Graduation System

  • Culminates in a well rehearsed and presented public concert that celebrates the achievement of levels;
  • Students achieve levels when their music is performed from memory, consistently without mistakes at the correct tempo;
  • Students are motivated and inspired by the positive success of others, and less by competition (or fear of failure);
  • Graduates receive recognised certificates and qualifications;
  • There are opportunities for rapid advancement (several levels at one time);
  • A fixed date each year to allow adequate preparation;
  • The assessment standards are completely explicit and demonstrated publicly at group classes.

Graduation systems work best with the impetus, learning energy and social power of weekly group classes. They provide valuable experience of playing for a discerning and appreciative audience: parents and other students.

Let’s look at that list of purposes again and see how they work with graduation.

  • Motivation and goals. √ √ Definitely. Students and parents look forward to graduation.
  • Experience in performing under pressure. √ √ A good grad system removes pressure.
  • Structure and system. √  Yes – matched to professional practice.
  • Measurement. √ Levels indicate achievement.
  • Recognition. √ See below *
  • Breadth. ? See below †
  • Feedback. √ √  Yes – detailed feedback is given throughout the leadup, in masterclasses and rehearsals.

Even if we accept that exams are problematic, what are the difficulties of implementing a graduation system?

†A potential limitation of graduation systems is that they focus primarily on performance – understandable, perhaps, because music is the sound of someone playing, yet other areas such as reading and theory are important skills for well-rounded musicians to learn. Reading can be strengthened by regularly participating in an orchestra or ensemble; and some theory may be left until later.

*Most music institutions have become familiar with the Suzuki levels and grade equivalents. In our case we took the step of registering our music institute with the national educational authorities, an extensive and onerous 4 year process, authorizing us to award nationally recognised music qualifications.

Music Exams or Suzuki Graduation? What do you think? What are your experiences?



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